Tips on Genealogical Research
  1. Genealogical Research - How to Begin
  2. Genealogy Pathfinder
  3. Tips for African-American Genealogical Research
Genealogical Research - How to Begin

Unless you are royalty or a president or other dignitary, finding your ancestor and making sure a "family tree" is kept for future generations may be up to you. Federal, state and local government agencies do not usually perform family research. Books on family history and genealogy are compiled and published by individuals or family groups who do so because they are interested in discovering and preserving their family history.

Start With Yourself
You are the beginning "twig" on your family tree. Start with yourself, the known, and work toward the unknown "roots". Find out the vital information about your parents, write it down, then look for data about your grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.

Names, Dates, Places, Relationships
You will be concerned with pulling these four key items from the many and varied documents of recorded history. They are the tools of the family searcher. People can be identified in records by their names, the dates of events in their lives (birth, marriage, death), the places they lived, and by relationships to others either stated or implied in the records.

Home Sources
The place to begin is at home. Here you may find many sources, such as in family bibles, newspaper clippings, military certificates, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, backs of pictures, baby books, etc.

Relatives as a Source
Visit or write those in your family who may have information, particularly older relatives. More often than not others before you have already gathered family data. You should write letters, make personal visits, and do telephone surveys to find out about such persons and what information has already been collected.

Finding Distant Relatives
Before launching your research program in libraries and archives, search for distant relatives who may have already performed research. Advertise your family interests in the national, regional and local genealogical magazines. Such periodicals are available in the east room of the Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature.

Church Records
A few churches have records of important events in the lives of members but many do not. Investigate the possibility of finding genealogical data in the records of the church to which your ancestor belonged.

Vital Records
Some states began to keep records of births and deaths earlier, but for most of the United States birth and death registration became a requirement around the turn of the century, about 1890-1915. Before that time these events will be found recorded generally only in church records and family bibles. Marriages will be found recorded in most counties, dating often as early as the establishment of the county.

Deeds and Wills
Records of property acquisition and disposition can be good sources of genealogical data. Such records are normally in the county courthouses. Often the earliest county records or copies of them are also available in the state archives.

Federal Records
The National Archives in Washington, DC has records of use in genealogical research. The Federal census, taken every 10 years since 1790, is a good source. The census records are also available on microfilm in the National Archives' regional archives branches located in eleven metropolitan areas throughout the country. The National Archives also has military service and related records, passenger arrival records, etc.

Libraries, Societies, Archives
Visit the state, regional or local institutions in your area. Libraries, historical and genealogical societies, and archival depositories are all good sources for genealogical and family history data. Be sure to find out what books are available on how to do genealogical research.

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Genealogy Pathfinder

It is important for a person to have a sense of "where they come from" and "who" they are. Daniel Webster once said, "If a person does not know from whence he came, he will not care much about where he is going." Talk to older members of your family and do a little research into your family history. Some of your ancestors may have served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the War Between the States, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Desert Storm, or some of the more recent conflicts. Remember women served in all these conflicts too.

The first thing you do is fill out an ‘Ancestor Chart'. USE a pencil to fill out the chart so you can erase errors.

Fill in the ancestor chart as completely as possible.

List dates as follows: day, month, and year. Ex. 5 May 1987

Write the last name first, then given name (first name). Always write the female's maiden name in and not her married name. If the maiden name is unknown then leave the space blank.

Attach a Family Group Sheet behind your ancestor chart for each level of ancestors for additional information.

Ex. Sheet #2 behind your genealogy chart will be for your parents' level. It will list your siblings and yourself in birth order. Sheet #3 will be for the grandparents' level and should show your parents with their siblings in birth order. Here is where you may include information such as: occupations, hobbies, war service, cause of death, and other interesting facts.

Research the origin of your surname. There are books at the Birmingham Public Library that give the meanings of surnames. There are also web pages that provide surname lists and the meanings of surnames.

Write one page on an ancestor you found to be either of the following:

  • most interesting and why
  • most embarrassing and why
  • most courageous and why

Document every piece of information you find. If the information is given to you orally, state the name of the person giving you the information. If you got the information from a family bible, then give the name of the owner of the bible. If you found the information in a cemetery, then give the name of the cemetery and its location.


In order to obtain information start by asking the oldest members of your family questions such as:

  • Have you always lived here? Did my grandparents always live here?
  • Where were you born?
  • How did you meet each other and where did you go to school?

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Tips for African-American Genealogical Research
Census Searching

If one goes to the 1850 census on and uses keyword 'Black' for any area of the country without entering any personal name in the search engine, all the names that come up that are not surname Black, or in a place with Black in the name (e.g. Black Rock Ward 11), are the free African Americans living in that place.

The second required step for 1850 is to do a keyword search for the letter 'M' and all the names that come up without the initial M in them are free African Americans designated as 'mulatto'. These can be pasted into a Word document. If the relevant entries are entered into an Excel database, it's possible to start manipulating the information by surname, ages, birthplace, first name, etc. For example, all the Virginia-born African American Buffalonians in 1870 can be located. The hard work is to reverse the name order in the draft database, as in the Ancestry database the full name is first/last as a single field. Doing each census separately is required, as there are different fields in each.

There are also tricks for each census:

  • 1860--need to do keyword first 'Black,' then 'mulatto'.
  • 1870--again not entering any personal name in the search engine, one can use the search engine template and limit search to 'colored,' but then must also do letter 'M', same as 1850.
  • 1880--one can limit search in the search template to first 'black' then ‘mulatto'.
Court Records

The Probate Court, also called the Inferior Court or Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, serves as the county court in most states. These courts are the ones most likely to contain genealogical information. It is in these courts that deeds, land records, wills, administrations of estates and so on can be found. Slaves were considered property so look in the Probate Court for transactions of sales and for estate settlements where people will be named. Each state has its own unique court system. Find out what courts existed and if the records survive for the time period you are researching.

Marriage Records

Marriages for former slaves can be found in the Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Alabama Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870 (insert different state name, if necessary). There are a number of marriage licenses, certificates, registers, and reports documenting the Federal government's effort to record marriages of former slaves. Officials in Alabama informed the freedmen of the law to register marriages; however, no effort was made to register people. Bureau of Freedmen officials in Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi provided guidance and issued licenses. It appears that the Federal officials in each state acted independently of the central directive to register marriages of former slaves as South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia lack licenses or certificates of marriage for the newly freed people. SOURCE:

Washington, Reginald. "Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony." Prologue, Spring 2005, pp.58-65.

Marriage records can be found in some Plantation records where they survive. Some families recorded marriages of their slaves in the family Bible or journal.

Military Records

African Americans have served in every conflict since the settlement of the country. There are books that list the names of those who fought in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. For an excellent source for information on the early wars consult Black Soldiers, Black Sailors, Black Ink: A Research Guide on African Americans in U.S. Military History, 1526-1900 by Thomas Moebs.

Over 100,000 African Americans served in the War Between the States. The majority served in the Union Army so service records can be found as well as pension records for them or their widows. It is not general knowledge however that a number of African Americans served in the Confederate Army. A portion of these men received pensions from the Southern state governments, so check Confederate pension records for names. South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and other Southern states paid pensions to African Americans. Some service records have been located for African Americans in the original muster rolls for the individual states located in the National Archives.

There is an index to U.S. pension applications that covers the years 1865-1943 that is helpful. The service records of World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and other conflicts are not available for research; however, there are many web sites that give the names of people who served in the various wars and you can order a copy of a person's service record from the Federal government.


Surnames of African Americans, for the most part, are mixed with surnames of British origin. There is no established tradition of names from African languages being used as American surnames. In general African Americans, used the names of their former owners or names of historical note such as Washington, Lincoln, or Lee. Only 14% of slaves did not use the surname of their former owners. There are African surnames, given names, and nicknames, but many of these were lost to those transported to the New World and sold as slaves. A Handbook of African Names by Ihechukwu Madubuike provides a basic explanation of African names and nicknames along with a list of the names and definitions.

Tax Records

Tax digests after 1866 can provide names of Freedmen as the tax records were divided into White taxpayers and Freedmen taxpayers. Many times people applied for Homestead Exemption which can have pertinent information such as the applicant's name, the name of their spouse and children, and sometimes the ages and names of the children.

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Page Last Modified: 7/6/2016 3:54 PM